It was mid January of ’94. In Pune, winters are never severe. It is like a lover caressing one’s cheeks with icy fingers. Lovely and romantic, winters in Pune are a thing to enjoy.
I was a guest of Shivaji University campus as a visiting delegate of inter-varsity state level boxing tournament, representing D Y Patil College of Engineering, Kolhapur in lightweight. I was a wiry guy who weighed 62kg in buff and like all lightweights, was quick on my feet with nasty and biting punches, which hit like stings of a gnat, drawing blood each time.
On the third day of the tournament, I lost in the quarterfinals to another lightweight from Maharashtra College, Bombay. He smashed me proper and demonstrated punch combinations I never knew existed. I was so punchdrunk that I don’t even remember how I reached the dressing room. The advantage of this humiliating defeat was that now I had four days in my hand to explore Pune at varsity expense, and I was planning to make the most of it. The city of Peshwa Bajirao is a beauty in itself and for a lover of architecture like me, is a treat. One day, while I was roaming across Bhavani Peth, I saw a crowd collected on the road.
A guy in his 30s was swaying and dancing to the foot tapping rhythm emanating from a small drum played by a woman, probably his wife; reciting a song in rustic Marathi dialect. He was wearing a long colourful skirt and bells around his ankles. His tanned dark body was naked above his waist. He had long dirty hair oiled and tied into a large bun behind his head and a thick beard. He carried a menacing looking 6 feet long whip with a knot at the end. His rippling biceps were streaked with turmeric and vermilion powder. His wild eyes were smudged with heaps of kohl. The yellow paint on his forehead seemed to burn in the morning sun. His wife was standing outside the shop of Puranik Upahar, while playing the small drum. One hand struck the drum repeatedly while the other rubbed a stick on the other end, creating a sound like a boogoo-boogoo-boogoo-boogoo. It wasn’t exactly a beat but just a strange hypnotic sound played in rhythm creating a sort of trance-like atmosphere. Her husband was dancing to this rhythm in a weird and repetitive manner, causing the bells on his feet to add to this unearthly percussion. He was twirling in his war-paint and flaring skirt, stomping his feet as she played the boogoo drum.
Suddenly he whirled and swung the thick whip around him in a controlled violence, while his wife looked at him impassively. The morning air vibrated with the crack of the whip like a pistol shot. He continued his dance while flogging himself hard, over and over again, screaming hysterically in a frenzy, before he unexpectedly moved very quickly towards two unsuspecting ladies with outstretched hands. They shrieked and walked quickly away from him, cringing. . The busy Pune population didn’t break its stride in the morning rush. He stopped his brutal exercise and started approaching the hurrying commuters for alms. Few of them gave him a stony look and hurried away. Some dug into their pockets and paid a small cash. he once again started flagellating himself.
I was shocked to see this! The thwak of the brutal whip was too real to ignore. As a boxer, I’m not a stranger to physical pain and can bear more than any normal man, but this masochism was something I wasn’t able to understand and which fascinated me. These illiterate guys manage to do things we are unable to imagine possible. In spite of my abhorrence for this brutal display of barbarianism, I felt a pity for the poor couple.
The bright winter sun was high in the sky. He and his wife were sitting outside a tea house and counting the change he had gathered, which was pitifully less, considering the pains he undertook to accrue them. The lady was mending a rip in the cloth of the small platform of gods, which she balanced on her head while playing the drum with both hands – a commendable feat in itself!
I went inside the tea house and sat on a table, my chin rested on my palm, staring at them in fascination. India is a strange land, full of strange customs. Much as I like to understand them all, I’ve never understood this tribe of people that walk the streets of the state, whipping themselves to this strange sound. They are called Kadaklakshmi. A member of the vanishing tribe ‘Potraj’ or ‘Potturaju’, as they call them in Chennai. Followers of the militant form of goddess Lakshmi, Mariaai or Mariamma, who banished her husband Vishnu to earth, these nomads continue his penance by flagellating themselves. Strange that they keep on beating themselves so brutally! I guess, not stranger than a couple of semi-naked grown ups, trying to outkill a total stranger in a boxing ring, after shaking hands with him like gentlemen.
“I hope, you didn’t give any money to this guy!” A clipped Puneri voice broke my philosophical deliberations. I looked around to see a fat guy sitting on the next table. He was looking at me speculatively.
“No, no!” I was a bit flustered, being addressed by a total stranger. “In fact, I was thinking of giving him something.”
“Never do that!” the man cried, looking at me reproachfully. “It’s people like you, who encourage begging! This guy is hale and hearty. It’s not that he is handicapped or terminally ill or something! The only disease he has is laziness. He just shirks hard work and has found an easy way out. He is fit enough to find some work in the market, but he won’t. This is the behavior, which is knocking the economy of this country out of shape!” The Economist flared up indignantly. “And, people like you are responsible for this menace.” He pointed a fat finger towards me, encased in jeweled rings.
I looked at the soft and well manicured hand, his multiple chins, quivering in self righteous anger, his portly belly and compared them to the scarred back of the Kadaklakshmi. This must be a hard working businessman, who toils away his hours brutally in an air conditioned office, with honest sweat on his brows. Suddenly an image danced before my eyes. Our businessman in colorful skirts and swaying to the boogoo drum, while the merciless whip lashed on his soft and flabby back, continuing the ancient penance of a banished god and getting paltry pennies in return. I laughed and stood up with the savior of economics looking at me in disgust.
I walked out and dropped a ₹10 note in the hands of the Kadaklakshmi. I could feel whiplashes on my own back, but was careless. I knew that they were nothing but poisonous daggers shot from the eyes of our Hard Working Economist on a traitor, who was out to spoil the Indian Economy by encouraging begging.
Who knows? I might be an ISI agent!